Actress Lorraine Toussaint is a force to behold. She’s been blessed with a consistent acting career lasting over two decades. She currently stars on two buzzworthy shows: ABC’s Forever and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and recently wrapped playing a civil rights activist in the MLK biopic, Selma (out Christmas day). The ever serene New Yorker spoke with ESSENCE.com about her spiritual life, why she is her own greatest teacher, and learning from her best mistakes.
Do you consider yourself spiritual, religious or none of the above?
I would say spiritual, but probably none of the above, because the word ‘spiritual’ now has been so overused. It has become a bit of a cliché.
Why do you dislike the word?
I think it’s been overused. People’s faith, people’s beliefs are such a personal thing and it defies definition. I’m so rarely interested in discussing what I believe or what you believe. I think it’s liquid anyway. There are so many names for the thing that cannot be named.
Who has been your greatest teacher?
I’ve been my greatest teacher. I think my mother… I must have been about 13 or something, we were Catholic up until that point and I remember my Mom saying to me, ‘Well, you know, I think I’ve given you a pretty decent foundation. Personally I’m not going the Catholic way anymore so you’re free to explore.’ And I did. I’ve been Buddhist, I’ve been Hindu, and I’ve certainly for the longest been a metaphysician. At the end of the day, it is my job to write my own Bible. Ooh, I can hear the ripple go through the heart of devout Christians but I mean that. My job is to pay attention. My job is to eek out what is the deeper meaning of this life and it is my personal charge to walk my talk. How well I walk my talk, and not talk my talk, determines the quality of my engagement, of all my experience with what is quite personally my God. I’m my greatest teacher and within me I have the power to push myself deeper and higher.
Have you always been like that?
Yes. I was born odd. I was a strange child. My grandmother was always praying over me. She was always rubbing me and praying over me. She was always rubbing, pulling and flinging. Rub, pull and fling. Rub, pull and fling. I’d go, ‘what the hell is she doing? She’s forever rubbing and pulling and flinging.’ I came out knowing a lot and didn’t know how I knew. I think I’ve just grown into owning what I’ve always known.
How wonderful that your family allowed you to be yourself.
Yes. I had an extraordinary mother who at 10, I said—I didn’t grow up with a TV—at 10, I said I want to be an actress. When everyone else in my family laughed, my mother did not. She’s the one who taught to live and ultimately taught me how to die.
I imagine your schedule is very busy. How often do you check in with Lorraine?
Every day. Every day. I’m checking in with her right now. That’s part of my religion. This is my temple right here.
How do you check in with yourself?
I meditate. I’ve been a meditator since, I think I was doing it unofficially before all my life and then began to formalize it somewhere around 14. By the time I was in high school, I was wandering up to South Fallsburg, New York, sitting at the feet of Muktananda; didn’t even know Muktananda was an enlightened one and I studied Buddhism in Japan. This is the thing that interests me almost probably more than anything else in this life. It has to do with the invisible world being more real.
What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?
I think I’ve made two. My ex-marriages were some of the best mistakes I’ve ever made because… I’m not married at the moment. I will be again, I’m sure. Gosh, ex-husbands—those were great mistakes. They taught me so much about myself. It has opened my heart to myself. Compassion has opened me up to loving. It has opened me up to owning myself and boundaries and clarity and unapologetically being me, and a cooler awareness that I will not dim my light for anyone, and anyone that asks it of me is my enemy. I don’t even have a real clear sense of enemy but that is something that is against me. I can smell that a mile away. At the end of the day, you can’t even call them mistakes. You actually have to call them; those people are ultimately my gurus. Those are the gurus in life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.